William & Mary’s Chancellor made the most of his visit to the campus over Homecoming weekend, meeting with students, faculty, staff and alumni and even participating in the parade and festivities at Saturday’s football game.
At each public event, Chancellor Robert M. Gates ’65 carried a similar message: W&M is a great university. Stay connected to it so you can make it even stronger.
“Being back on campus reminds all of us of our time here as students,” Gates said to alumni in the Sadler Center’s Commonwealth Auditorium on Friday. “We inherited this great institution, the alma mater of a nation, from those who came before us, and it’s up to us to leave an even stronger William & Mary for the generations who will come after.”
Gates, who previously served as the director of the CIA and secretary of defense, was invested as the university’s Chancellor, an honorary position, in 2012. He has returned to his alma mater multiple times since. During this visit, Gates met with ROTC cadets; spoke at the Sunset Ceremony; visited international relations and government classes; talked with faculty, students and staff at the School of Education; and hosted two forums: one for students and the other for alumni.
The visit came on the heels of Thursday’s announcement that Gates will donate his personal papers to the university. He and his wife, Rebecca, also committed from their estate a gift currently estimated at $1.5 million, which includes a $1.45 million bequest to support scholarships for international relations and global studies undergraduates. The remaining $50,000 has been designated for the cataloging and digitization of the Chancellor’s papers.
A great model
At Friday’s alumni forum, Karen Cottrell, executive vice president of the Alumni Association, noted that one of the things the association tries to do is help alumni stay engaged with William & Mary.
“I think we have no greater model for that than our Chancellor,” she said at the Friday afternoon event.
Gates reflected on his experience at William & Mary as an undergraduate student and his more recent interactions with the College.
“The quality of the education at William & Mary today is better than when we were here,” he said to his fellow alumni. “The College has preserved the focus on teaching, but there are so many more tools available to them now that were not available to us when we were students.”
A former president of Texas A&M University, Gates answered multiple questions from the audience on the current state of education for public universities, which face the challenge of decreased state support.
“A significant turnaround in that is not likely, so I think that universities have to be more creative in their funding,” he said. “And here, I give the Board of Visitors a lot of credit for their courage in going forward and approving the William & Mary Promise. It’s a tough thing to raise tuition … but what the media doesn’t reflect is that there is a cause and effect between the level of state funding and where tuitions are for most universities.”
Gates, who retired in 2011 after being the only defense secretary to serve under two presidents of different political parties, also addressed the impact sequestration is already having on the country’s military and his reaction to the recent government shutdown.
“I don’t think in my whole life I’ve ever been angrier than when I heard on the news that because of the government shutdown, we could not pay for families to go to Dover (Air Force Base) and grieve for their fallen soldiers and we could not pay the compensation to their families,” Gates said. “That is the most sacred contract there is.”
A discussion on national issues
National issues also took center stage the previous evening when Gates hosted the student forum, sponsored by the Student Assembly. Most of that hour-long session, moderated by Student Assembly President Chase Koontz, was devoted to answering students’ questions. Gates also encouraged students to remain connected to William & Mary after they graduate.
“Over the years, my appreciation for our college has only increased. I expect you will find this true as well,” he said. “The combination of people and place, moments and memories make coming home to William & Mary a great thing. I hope you, too, will stay connected to the College long after your four years on campus conclude.”
Gates candidly discussed a variety of topics, including Russia’s leadership and future under President Vladimir Putin; current unrest in Syria; past – and possible future – mistakes in Afghanistan; and the “political paralysis” in Washington D.C., which Gates considers our most dangerous threat to national security.
In response to one question, Gates discussed the delicate balance between a citizen’s “right to privacy” versus the best interests of national security.
“Let’s be honest; we’re talking about what the NSA is doing,” said Gates, referring to the ongoing controversy regarding surveillance by the National Security Agency. Last week, former NSA worker Edward Snowden released classified documents that showed the NSA monitored the phone conversations of 35 world leaders. It is the latest release of classified documents by Snowden, who released documents earlier this year detailing NSA spying efforts.
“As far as I am concerned, Edward Snowden is a traitor,” said Gates, adding that the federal government has created a number of institutions to monitor the activity of the country’s intelligence agencies.
Almost none of those institutions have criticized the work of the NSA following the release of the classified information, Gates said.
“These revelations by Snowden have reignited the debate about how effective are these oversight institutions. And that’s a debate worth having,” Gates said. “But the formula where a 25- or 30-year-old can disregard those institutions and take it upon himself to determine what should be released – and what should not be released – that’s a formula for chaos.”
Rebounding from failure
Gates ended the student forum by leaving the students with a message about failure – and how to rebound from what could be considered a failure. He spoke in detail about two instances in his own life.
One failure, Gates said, came when he was a freshman at William & Mary. A pre-med student, Gates said he received a grade of D in his first calculus class. His father called long distance from Kansas – a big deal in those days -- concerned.
“I said, ‘Well Dad, in truth the D was gift,’” said Gates, to laughter by students at the forum. Gates switched majors and went on to earn his undergraduate degree in history from W&M. A long and decorated career in public service followed.
Gates also discussed a challenging time that occurred well into his professional career. He was nominated in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan to become director of the Central Intelligence Agency. The timing, he said, was shortly after the Iran-Contra affair, and controversy surrounding the nomination was stirring in Congress. Gates went to the president and offered to withdraw his nomination. He believed it was in the best interests of the country to move on. It was an action that put the nation before his own professional career – and an action that got the attention and respect of many in D.C.
It could have been seen as a career-ending failure. Gates said he could have simply disappeared from public life. But following the nomination withdrawal, Gates said, he made friends and allies from all political circles. He was nominated again in 1991 by President George H.W. Bush and confirmed, becoming the first career officer in the CIA's history to rise from entry-level employee to director.
“I don’t know anybody who has been successful in life who hasn’t failed,” Gates said. “The way you handle a situation – the way you handle failure – will make all of the difference in your life.”